The Need for an Arts Institute in Liberia

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“We should recognize the role of creative and expressive culture in national
integration or reintegration, national reconciliation and national unity. Literature, poetry, music, dances, paintings, plays, folktales, proverbs and parables are all critical assets in nation building.”
-Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, speaking as national orator during Liberia’s 165th Independence day celebrations in 2012.

In a bid to showcase Liberia’s rich cultural heritage through visual arts, I opened the Art of The Heart Galley on November 24, 2008, a move that would later give birth to the Liberia Visual Arts (LIVARTS) Academy on September 6, 2010. LIVARTS is doing fairly well today having successfully graduated hundreds of students over the past four years; some of them are now giving artistic services to other organizations. Thanks to supports from several embassies in Monrovia as well as a number of international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working in the country, we have managed to sustain our operations.

Despite this support and our existing partnerships, there is a need to raise more awareness among Liberians to see art as an honorable career that can contribute immensely to national development and encourage private sector entrepreneurship. More concrete, visible steps need to be taken by Liberian artists to provide this impetus.

The art gallery was a good step where works by some of the country’s fine artists were showcased for sale and exhibitions were mounted that featured these artists. Hardly a week went by without an international visitor walking into the gallery and purchasing a piece, or without a call (or email) asking for a collaboration. One such collaborations came in 2009 when the gallery was approached by the World Bank in Washington DC to coordinate Liberian artists in order for Liberian artwork to be represented at the “Africa Now!” art exhibition.

Today, LIVARTS is on that same path. From June to August 2014, during the height of the Ebola epidemic, the academy collaborated with the Benetton Foundation in Italy. This collaboration led to the publication of a book on contemporary art in Liberia and Sierra Leone following an intense four-day workshop for practicing artists along with students of LIVARTS. Moataz Safty, an Egyptian artist who is the curator for the Benetton Foundation, made it a priority for Liberia to be included in the publication titled: “Contemporary Arts from Liberia and Sierra Leone – The Everyday Struggle”. Besides collaborations with institutions, individual collaborations from abroad are also on the rise.

I am inclined to believe this base will go a long way if we now begin to put in place the rightful mechanisms.

Many great painters, sculptors, writers, poets, musicians, dancers and dance troupes, have come and gone from the Liberian art scene. Today we continue to enjoy the works of these artists be it R. van Richards’ relief mural panels adorning the Edward J. Roye building on Ashmun Street; the tragic love story of Tenneh and Gotokai; Zack and Gebah’s warning song about a civil war that would eventually erupt and go on for fourteen years; the Liberian ‘V’ ring that was never patented; or the etching of agricultural produce on a dollar coin used in the country in the 70s and 80s, etc. Many of these artists were self-taught while others took the time to develop their talents at formal art institutions. While these artists are remembered today by many, the state remains rather aloof to the tremendous positive impacts they have on the life of the nation.

That was then.

Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands of talented Liberians of all ages in all disciplines of the arts, from fine art to music, theatre and craft-making in all of our fifteen counties from Cape Mount to Cape Palmas. Why is it then that our national leaders are not interested in the arts, to the extent that the subject no longer exists in our national school curriculum? Up coming artists in Liberia need to be assured that art is a noble career. They need not only believe but know that they can make a decent living from art, as is done in other countries. Art has to be institutionalized in Liberia. This is the only way cultural centers like famous Kendeja will not be traded for a multi-star hotel in the name of ‘development’ in the future.

In July of 2012, the national orator for Liberia’s 165th independence day celebrations, Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, an internationally acclaimed scholar, historian and author, underscored the need for a National Arts Council to be established in the country. Despite all efforts by leading artists and art organizations, that finally drafted submitted a a very comprehensive proposal under the guidance of Dr. Dunn on the establishment of such art council with hundreds of signatures of Liberian artists and art promoters at home and abroad, that effort received nothing but lip service from our national leaders.

Only the University of Liberia (UL) offers art as an elective to students and the art department is headed by a non-Liberian who is bending over backwards to keep the program alive. In a country where more than fifteen different newspapers appear on the newsstands daily, only one has a weekly column highlighting local Art and Culture (thanks to the paper you are reading). Why do Liberian stakeholders continue to understimate the role of the arts in national development?

The main reason is because art, unlike law, medicine, politics, sociology, etc., is not institutionalized in the country. This is why there is a need for an art institute to be established in the country at this time. I have plans to open Liberia’s first art institute. It will offer all of the disciplines in the arts from fine art to dance, literature, music, performing arts, sculpture, etc.

A number of our neighboring countries have art institutes which bring immense benefit to the people in those countries:

Cote d’Ivoire, for example, has LINSAC, or the National Institute of Science, Art and Culture.

Some of the graduates from LINSAC teach arts in the various high schools throughout the country as well as in other Francophone countries. Others work in government institutions such as museums as curators while a good number of these graduates take to full studio life, working and selling their works through local and international galleries. I know a sculptor in Abidjan who buys local woods and treats them for several months before setting out to start his carving. He would take another 4-6 months creating wood carvings representing different facets of the Ivorian culture. Once completed, he ships his art works to Europe where a gallery is waiting to exhibit them!

A musician will travel from Cameroon or Congo to France or Belgium respectively with his or her dance troupe for a mega concert! Their works are celebrated both at home and abroad. Burkina Faso holds FESPACO — a biannual international film festival! Ghanaian artists are winning national and international awards around the clock, not to mention the huge gallery of Professor Ablade Glover which has been opened in the heart of Accra since 1993, a move that brought international attention to traditional and contemporary African art.

What is the trick?

The trick lies in the walls of reputable art institutes. It is time Liberians begin to support their children in art schools, see performances by art students, documentary films being made by art students, songs, books, etc., all by art students from a recognized art institute in the country that is fully equipped and staffed with qualified professors.

Establishing such an institute is not a thing that can be done with the stroke of a pen. It will require research, resources, commitment, partnership, and collaboration with other art institutes around the globe.

While it is a fact that not everyone coming from the walls of an art institute will become a full-time studio artist, the trainings and skills acquired at such institution will guide all graduates for a life time in any other filed they may wish to pursue from banking to medicine; from law, politics, to governance, etc.

Kindly take 3 minutes to watch a recent video about our art academy on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVXR6PHdLBQ (July 2015) made by American documentary film maker Jim Tuttle.

Feel free to contact us via email at: [email protected] or visit the academy on 15th. Street & Payne Avenue in the compound of Alliance Francaise in Sinkor on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2:00 – 5:00 PM.

Thank you for your support and believing in our vision.

About the author:
Leslie Lumeh is the founder and Executive Director of the Liberia Visual Arts (LIVARTS) Academy. He holds a diploma in architectural drafting from the Booker Washington Institute (BWI). He was recently selected by the French based organization African Artists for Development (AAD) to represent Liberia among 54 other artists, each from an African country, featured in the “Lumieres d’Afrique” art exhibition slated for November 2015 in Paris. He is the resident cartoonist at the Daily Observer newspaper in Monrovia. Contact Leslie Lumeh via email at: [email protected]

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